William Boyle has worked his way into becoming one of crime fiction’s talents. I learned about him through both Ace Atkins and Megan Abbott. Tom Franklin is also a vocal fan. In both his short story collection, Death Have No Mercy, and debut novel Gravesend, he chronicles the battered souls of working class East Coast in a way that hits the heart without being maudlin. His second novel, The Lonely Witness, proves he is taking his skills further.
His main character, Amy, appeared in Gravesend as a lover to the female lead Alyssandra. Here, she has put down her party girl ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut-ins of her Brooklyn neighborhood, living in a basement apartment of a lonely older man who would be like to be her surrogate father. The existence of quiet or possible penance is rocked when one of the elderly women she visits worries about a friend’s son, Vinny, who came into her house and rummaged through her things, looking for something to steal.
Amy follows Vinny one night, only to witness him get stabbed. Instead of going to the police, she picks up the dropped murder weapon and looks into the murder herself. Soon, she feels like she is being stalked by the killer. Between the danger she has placed herself in and the return of both Alyssandra and a father she thought was dead, Amy is compelled to return to her old ways.
Boyle subtly taps into noir’s sense of despair and desperation. His Brooklyn shows the neighborhood which gentrification has either ignored or pushed aside. Anybody over thirty speaks of the old ways and listens to old music, even if it was before their time. Everyone is in search of a life whether in the promise of a future or knowing comfort of the past, and crime seems to be the only way out. Most of the reveals in the book aren’t earth shattering, they are small, precise, and painfully human.
The journey Boyle takes Amy through may be small in geography, but he makes the possible falls from the sidewalk to the gutter bottomless. His people commit desperate acts they don’t fully understand to escape their community of decay. What makes William Boyle’s work ring with such a strong and true voice is that he realizes for many daily life is a struggle. His writing prays for them.